Iowa driving the way for autonomous vehicles
Transportation department, researchers want to be ready for the future
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CORALVILLE — Daniel McGehee sat behind the wheel of a black Volvo XC90 as it traveled east down Interstate 80. But his hands barely touched the steering wheel.
As it exited the interstate to Highway 965, the SUV used onboard cameras to “read” a speed limit sign, adjusted its speed and eventually came to a gentle stop behind a fellow motorist.
McGehee’s feet never touched the pedals.
The SUV, which belongs to the University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator, is far from driverless, but researchers such as McGehee say they’re getting closer every day with driver-assistance technology.
“This generation of technology is essentially looking over my shoulder,” said McGehee, professor and director if the National Advanced Driving Simulator in the UI college of engineering. “These are to assist the driver. If you connect the dots and sort of take this to the next level ... we can start to let the car control itself a little longer.”
While McGehee has been working on this technology since the mid-1990s, some Iowa officials — including those in economic development and state transportation — have taken steps recently to position the state to be a leader in autonomous cars.
With cameras and sensors, lane-awareness functions and vehicle-detection systems, the UI’s 2016 Volvo may sound like something out of a science fiction novel to some. But anyone can buy the same vehicle off today’s car lot.
And they’re getting cheaper, McGehee said.
“This technology is here now, it’s not in the future, it’s operating on our roads and it’s inexpensive,” McGehee said. “It used to be only the really high-end cars had this technology — now it’s in entry-level vehicles.”
As researchers such as McGehee and automotive companies bring vehicles closer to complete autonomy, the Iowa Department of Transportation wants to be ready for that technology as it becomes more accessible to motorists.
“We’re trying to really just prepare for the future, that’s really the role where we come in,” said Scott Marler, director of the Iowa DOT’s office of traffic operations.
Last year, the DOT entered into a roughly $2 million agreement with Chicago’s digital mapping company HERE to perform digital high definition mapping of Interstate 380 between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. Marler said mapping on the approximately 20 miles of interstate took place in January.
Marler said the DOT’s partnership with HERE — along with the UI and Iowa State University — is part of a multiphase effort to begin preparing for autonomous vehicle technology.
Other key factors will include collecting real-time data such as weather, crashes, obstructions and work zones, establishing a digital infrastructure and creating advanced predictive modeling — the data inputs autonomous vehicles use to make decisions.
Marler said it’s difficult to know timeline and cost estimates for such pioneering efforts.
“What we’re doing here has not been done before, we’re kind of trailblazing a little bit,” he said. “This is only the beginning, so we don’t know where this is going to take us.”
McGehee has been with the UI for more than two decades, with some of his earliest work — on Ford Motors’s forward collision warning systems, for example — now commonplace in many new vehicles.
Such work in Iowa has not gone unnoticed. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation designated the UI’s driving simulator and the Corridor as one of the nation’s 10 proving ground pilot sites to encourage testing of such technology.
Iowa City Area Development Group (ICAD) submitted the application for designation on behalf of the Corridor and in partnership with the Iowa DOT and the UI. Designees were selected from more than 60 applicants.
McGehee said such a distinction is a testament to the university’s long history of research.
“It really gives us some extra panache over some other universities to say we have the legislative climate to be able to operate in this space,” McGehee said.
Tom Banta, director of strategic growth for ICAD, said he hopes to leverage that distinction to bring new businesses and jobs to the area.
Banta said plans on that front are still coming together, but the hope is to showcase the partnerships and ongoing research in the area to attract companies focused on technologies associated with autonomous cars.
“We’re still trying to define what that might look like,” Banta said. “We don’t anticipate Google or Tesla necessarily setting up a huge office here for manufacturing or development, but we do anticipate seeing smaller (start-up companies), maybe with a small office of five, 10, 15 engineers, but hopefully we can attract five, 10, 15, 20 of those.”
Back in the UI’s Volvo SUV, McGehee gave a demonstration braking system, which can stop at the same rate as a Porsche 911, thanks to its onboard computer’s ability to react to emergency situations, he said.
“That’s better than a human — we don’t brake that hard,” McGehee said after the vehicle went from 45 miles per hour to a standstill in an instant.
“Even if I tell you, ‘I want you to brake as hard as you can,’ you can’t brake that hard manually. The computer actually takes it to the next level.”
And that’s the whole goal, McGehee said, to reduce crashes that are the result of human error.
There were 404 highway fatalities in Iowa last year — a nearly 28 percent increase from 2015, according to DOT data.
In addition, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found drivers to be the critical reason for 94 percent of motor vehicle crashes nationwide from 2005 to 2007.
The administration also estimates new safety systems such as advanced braking or lane departure warning systems and vehicle-to-vehicle connection technology — which allows vehicles to “talk” to each other by sharing speed and position data — would prevent or reduce the severity of 80 percent of those crashes.
The DOT’s Marler said autonomous vehicle technology could become a significant factor in the DOT’s commitment to safe mobility, or ensuring that travelers and goods reach their destinations safely.
“The technology holds a lot of promise, and it’s something that the Iowa DOT is interested in exploring further and testing and developing because of the potential it holds to reduce crashes,” Marler said.
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